Central Virginia Republicans will decide in a week whether to stick with Rep. Denver Riggleman, whose libertarian swagger has agitated some activists enough that they sought a challenger.
Riggleman, R-Nelson, and Bob Good are locked into a bitter battle over the party nomination, with Good questioning Riggleman’s conservative credentials and Riggleman, who is seeking a second term, not apologizing for his libertarian views.
“It’s my independence that scares those who want to control others,” Riggleman said.
Republicans will settle the contest on Saturday with an unusual convention. The winner will face a Democrat chosen in the June 23 primary.
Conventions are typically all-day events. Political activists gather in a gymnasium and listen to speeches and vote for candidates. The coronavirus pandemic disrupted that plan, causing the political committee organizing the event to come up with a way for people to safely cast their votes.
Instead of gathering inside the Tree of Life Ministries in Campbell County, people will drive through the parking lot and fill out their ballots and leave. They’ll travel across the 5th Congressional District, which stretches from Fauquier County to the North Carolina border and includes Franklin County and part of Bedford County. More than 3,500 delegates have been elected to participate, but it’s unlikely nearly that many people will show up.
“This election is about holding the congressman accountable,” Good said.
Conservative activists began searching for someone to challenge Riggleman shortly after he officiated a same-sex marriage in July. They identified Good, a former Campbell County supervisor who recently stepped down as associate athletics director and chief fundraiser for athletics at Liberty University, as a potential challenger.
Good said he isn’t running just because of what Riggleman did, although he’s opposed to same-sex marriage.
“For him to perform his one and only wedding to make a political statement and get it in The Washington Post, and then attack conservatives who believe differently about that issue and expressed their concerns, it just illustrated who he is and what he’s about,” Good said. “It illustrated his arrogance and his, frankly, contempt for the conservative base of the party.”
Riggleman, 50, was open about his support for same-sex marriage before he got elected to Congress. He considers it a matter of individual liberty.
“My definition of conservativism is individual liberty and getting the government out of your business,” Riggleman said. “We don’t want a party that’s so small that it only fits in the bedroom.”
Good, 54, lives in Campbell County, and he worked for more than 15 years at CitiGroup before joining Liberty University, his alma mater. Good said he was the “conservative leader” on the board of supervisors, advocating for policies such as allowing localities to have the authority to regulate transgender people using public bathrooms and cutting spending.
“I’m a biblical conservative and a constitutional conservative,” Good said.
Good is opposed to abortion in all cases, while Riggleman supports exceptions. Good wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but Riggleman said it’s better to improve it and went so far as to vote to condemn President Donald Trump’s support for invalidating the health care law in its entirety.
“I’m always looking at voting records, and unfortunately Denver didn’t prove himself to be who he campaigned to be,” said Karen Angulo, who intends to vote for Good at the convention.
Good said he’s not afraid of government shutdowns, and he would never vote to raise the debt ceiling.
Citing his concern for how first-generation immigrants are likely to vote for Democrats, Good said immigration reform is a top priority for him. He wants to end birthright citizenship, describing the children born in the United States from unauthorized immigrants as “anchor babies.” He also wants to stop the process that the United States uses that prioritizes admitting immigrants with relatives living here. He wants to make English the official national language and “stop accommodating immigrants and their native tongues, because it’s our unity that’s our strength.”
“We’ve got to eliminate illegal immigration and manage legal immigration in a way that puts Americans first, puts our citizens first, American jobs first,” Good said.
Good and his supporters have criticized votes Riggleman has taken on immigration issues, such as a proposal to end the logjam of worker visas intended for temporary workers in science and technology fields. These visas have become stepping stones to citizenship for immigrants able to study at American colleges or get recruited by American employers.
Good said immigrants are taking jobs from Americans, but Riggleman said it’s not so simple.
“The United States is a nation of immigrants,” Riggleman said. “There are areas we’re sorely lacking in the job skills market. Certain parts of the district are losing population, so we need workers, we need skilled immigrant workers.”
Good’s endorsements include Virgil Goode, the Democrat-turned-Republican who used to represent the same congressional district, and Rep. Tom Garrett, Riggleman’s predecessor who did not seek reelection after one term to seek treatment for his alcoholism and amid a House Ethics Committee investigation into his use of congressional staffers’ time to run his personal favors and errands.
“Denver ran as an outsider, someone who was counter to the establishment culture, and then got to Washington and immediately sort of engaged in that establishment culture,” Garrett said during a radio interview.
Good pointed to Riggleman’s large fundraising haul during his first year in office as something that should give people pause. Since being in office, Riggleman has raised $1.3 million, with most of his donations coming from political action committees and other committees. He’s spent most of it, with $203,645 remaining in the bank by the end of May. Good has raised $186,303 and has a balance of $34,482.
Riggleman, whose family runs a distillery, has endorsements from Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Rep. Ben Cline, R-Botetourt, and George Allen, the former Virginia governor and U.S. senator. Riggleman frequently calls attention to Trump backing him.
“Denver keeps wrapping himself in the Trump endorsement because he can’t run on his record,” Good said.
Riggleman has been highlighting the ways he’s working to help the district, such as securing millions of dollars for broadband expansion and expanding industrial hemp production. He’s part of a working group that comes up with proposals to fight the opioid crisis. He’s introduced legislation to strip away regulations for farmers he considers unnecessary financial burdens.
Riggleman’s Republican colleagues have praised him for being able to work well within the party ranks as well as negotiate across the aisle.
“I’ve always been about individual liberty and allowing people to live the way they want to live,” Riggleman said. “With over 700,000 constituents, you try to take into consideration the needs of a lot of people, not just a few.”
Republican activists like conventions for a few different reasons. The method allows them to have tighter control on candidates and voters to ensure more ideological purity. Conventions also have a way of leveling the playing field. Someone with less name recognition and less money has a decent shot at competing against an incumbent.
The planning around the convention has been plagued by controversy, with threats of lawsuits and Riggleman and his supporters alleging the process is “corrupt.”
“It’s a farce of a convention,” said Tyler Pieron, a Riggleman delegate from Charlottesville. “They’ve manipulated this convention, and I worry people will be disenfranchised.”
When Riggleman pushed for the 5th Congressional District Republican Committee, which is handling the nomination process, to consider multiple voting locations to reduce travel during the pandemic, paid members of Good’s staff serving on the committee voted to stay with a single location.
Good supporters have defended the convention location against accusations it’ll benefit Good, who lives about 10 minutes away, by arguing it will use a weighted vote according to the localities’ populations. For example, if a locality is allotted 200 votes and only 100 people show up and 75 of them vote for Riggleman and 25 vote for Good, Riggleman gets 150 votes and Good gets 50.
“The method is not only corrupt, it’s the reason why people that have never been involved in politics do not want to get involved,” Riggleman said. “It looks like complete insanity from the outside.”
The Riggleman team challenged the congressional committee's decision to use the church, but Republicans rejected his appeal. Riggleman then had the state party's governing State Central Committee hear an appeal on Saturday.
A few members of the body expressed concern about the perception of unethical conduct in the planning of the convention. Others were wary of creating chaos for the nomination process just one week away by overturning decisions and said no rules were clearly violated. State Central Committee voted to reject Riggleman's appeal.
“I feel like the Serpico of Republican politics,” Riggleman said, referring to the former New York City police detective who called attention to police corruption in the 1960s and ‘70s.
In the past several years, Republicans have been growing increasingly frustrated with conventions because activists will try and structure them in unusual ways that invites accusations that they are trying to rig them for certain candidates. A few activists can wield a lot of power in nomination processes.
“I’m not going to kiss the ring,” Riggleman said of those activists.
A handful of the same activists have been involved in multiple recent controversial conventions. Party insiders rallying around Good supported a far-right candidate who came close to winning the nomination against Riggleman two years ago. That candidate, Cynthia Dunbar, also competed in a congressional convention in another district in Virginia, backed by some of the same activists.
“The thing is this is not about Bob Good,” Riggleman said. “He’s just who they put up there. I’m fighting the same people I fought last time.”
If Riggleman emerges as the winner of the convention, will he do anything differently to make the people working hard to unseat him happy?
“Not a damn thing,” Riggleman said.